Monday, December 8, 2014

North of Northeast Part VII

Jaswantgarh” was an army defensive position set up during 1962 war, overlooking the main Se La -Tawang axis road, as it descends into the valley of Tawang Chu river. To understand it's strategic importance, we need to look into a few geographical and historical facts. The Tawang ridge originates from a point, west of “Kangto” massif, on India-China border from where the Se La ridge originates and runs in southwest direction almost parallel to it. The ridge is bounded by deep valleys of two rivers; Tawang Chu flowing in southwest direction and Nayamjang Chu flowing south. The rivers meet at a point roughly 40 Km south west of Tawang and the merged river flows onwards to Bhutan. The Tawang Chu valley separates the Tawang Ridge and the Se La ridge. The main road connecting Se La with Tawang (NH 229) descends into the Tawang Chu valley near Jaswantgarh.

Historically speaking, after the initial Chinese thrusts in Tawang area in October 1962, they had occupied all areas north of Tawang Chu river. Highway 229 crosses the Tawang Chu river at Jang and this bridge was destroyed by Indian Army. Between 24th October and 17th November there was no major confrontation and both sides were reorganizing their strengths. At that point of time Indian army wanted to convert the Se La pass as a defensive fortress and had stationed the troops accordingly. The entire area on the banks of Tawang Chu river, south of Jang was entrusted to 4 Garhwal Rifles. Jaswantgarh was to be a forward screen for defenses of Se La.

As I stand at Jaswantgarh, facing the Tawang Chu valley, I remember these geographic and historic facts to appreciate how strategically important Jaswantgarh really was. On my right is the deep and constricting ravine of Nuranang Chu river before is falls down to meet Tawang Chu. Straight ahead are the mountain ranges of Tawang ridge and far behind it, towering is the sky are high Himalayan snow clad peaks, through which India-China border( McMahon line) passes. These peaks are of about 20000 feet height and the tallest one on right is most probably the “Kangto” peak towering at 23260 feet. On my left is a high ground with a flag fluttering in the breeze with a shallow trough in between, through which a “Nullah” or a rivulet flows. Far beyond that and on the other side of Tawang Chu valley, I can see the road climbing up towards Tawang, which by itself is not seen from Jaswantgarh.

Army has established a befitting memorial here to honour a brave soldier and his colleagues, who fought a great battle on these slopes against advancing Chinese army. In fact, this perhaps is the only place in Arunachal, where original army bunkers of 1962 war have been retained and maintained by the army to give an idea to the visitors. Many stories circulate in the social media about heroic deeds of this brave soldier, who is now treated by our soldiers as a saint, who provids protection to all members of armed forces stationed in this sector.

Though, many stories circulate in the media about the battle of Jaswantgarh, including one in which a Rambo style one man army fought against Chinese. Here is the version from, what is mentioned on Legend plates at the memorial and official records.

Following the withdrawal of Indian troops from Tawnag, 4th battalion of Garhwal Rifles was positioned in this area with its 'A' company taking positions on the hill slope overlooking the road. The first Chinese attack came at about 5AM on 17 November 1962, when Chinese soldiers dressed in guise of local Monpa tribal were detected and beaten back. Two more attacks came at 7.45 AM and at 9.10 AM. These attacks too were beaten back. Then, Chinese moved up an MMG (Medium Machine Gun) to the high ground about 40 meters away from the platoon on the left and brought down very heavy volume of fire on Indian troops virtually disabling their own LMG (Light Machine Gun) fire.

Lance Naik Trilok Singh, Rifleman Jaswant singh and Rifleman Gopal Singh volunteered to silence the menacing MMG by physically neutralising it. Jaswant and Gopal, armed only with hand grenades, in total disregard of personal safety, crawled under heavy enemy fire to close in with the MMG. Trilok provided covering fire with his sten gun from about 15 meters.They hurled the hand grenades to silence the MMG and then physically assaulted the position to find two Chinese killed and a third wounded, but still holding on to the weapon. Jaswant using both his hands snatched the MMG and crawled back. Just as he was about to reach his trench, he was hit by a fatal bullet on his head. Trilok in the meanhile was spotted by the Chinese and killed by a long burst from an automatic weapon. Gopal, badly wounded, managed to drag the captured MMG back to his trench.

This entire action took only 15 minutes. But the courage of these men changed the course of the battle. Indian weapons came alive once again to conclusively beat back the fourth Chines attack at 11.40 AM. Chinese launched fifth attack at 2.45 PM. This too was effectively beaten back and the enemy withdrew leaving over 300 dead and wounded against losses of 2 dead and 8 wounded for 4 Garhwal.

For this most conspicuous and brave action, 4 Garhwal was awarded battle honour “Nuranang.” the only battle honour awarded to any unit in India-China war 1962. Rifleman Jaswant Singh was awarded with army's highest award for bravery, “Maha Veer Chakra” (posthumous), Lance Naik Trilok Singh with “Veer Chakra” (posthumous) and Rifleman Gopal Singh Veer Chakra. ”

The incredible story of bravery of these three Jawans of Indian army assumes great significance, because it was only here that the Chinese attacks were successfully beaten back by Army. That is why Jaswantgarh war memorial has become a source of inspiration and courage for all the troops passing through area.

I climb few steps that lead to the compound around the memorial hall. Outside in the courtyard, there are plaques describing the heroic deeds of the men, who fought in this area. In the center stands the statue of an unknown soldier and inside the hall, a glass cubicle in the centre houses a golden coloured bust of Jaswant Singh. A show case exhibits the meager personal belongings of this extraordinarily brave person. A curtained glass cubicle stands on right of the bust. Armymen believe that the spirit of saint Jaswant Singh guards them here. Like a temple he is offered “Prashad” but with a change. It consists of only standard army rations. A sten gun of 1962 vintage is displayed. Citations for Jaswant Singh and other heroes of the battle adorn the walls.

I stand silently in front of the bust, paying my homage. Afterwords we are taken around the battleground by a JCO of one of Maratha regiments stationed here. He is extremely pleased to know that we are from Maharashtra state, to which he also belongs. The defensive positions built by 4 Garhwal at Jaswantgarh were on a steep slope on both sides of the road leading to Tawang. The army has still maintained well, several bunkers and the company HQ bunker. We peep into several of them. The company HQ still has a large sick bay, a radio room, dining table with mugs and plates arranged and a kitchen.

The JCO points out to a flag fluttering on the left high ground, that I had seen earlier. He says that the flag is kept to mark the position of MMG, which Jaswant singh had captured singlehandedly. A plot of land behind the bunkers is marked with barbed wire compound to indicate the Chinese cemetery, where bodies of 300 dead Chine soldiers were buried.

Battle of Jaswantgarh is probably as important and historic as the one at Rezang La in Ladakh, but with one difference. Rezang La was a group effort in which a company of about 100 men had fought the Chinese to very end, killing in process more than 1000 soldiers of enemy. Jaswantgarh battle was won because of an impossible deed of a few men, who had shown utmost bravery.

Army runs a small store here in Jaswantgarh, selling mementos, tee shirts etc. They also offer free tea to anyone and tasty Samosas at a very cheap cost. I enjoy the tea and Samosas and we leave for Tawang.

After leaving Jaswantgarh, the road immediately starts descending into the deep valley of Tawang Chu. I did not really notice the time at Jaswantgarh, but shadows of darkness are already spreading across the forests and the valley. On opposite side of the valley, tiny villages are lighting up for the night. Soon night takes over and I keep sitting in the car as it rumbles on bad roads,imagining how Jaswantgarh must have looked on that fateful day in November 1962,

We cross a bridge on Tawang Chu river at the bottom of the valley. I look outside the car, the village name is mentioned as “Jang.” This is another historic landmark of 1962 war. After withdrawing from Tawang ridge, Indian army units had taken positions on south bank of Tawang Chu river from where we had just crossed the river. This bridge was blown to stop Chinese advance. It did stop them, but only for a month.

We reach Tawang after climbing up almost 9000 to 10000 feet. It is really cold out here with temperatures touching single digits. A hot dinner and warm bed awaits me at the hotel. Tomorrow, we shall go round Tawang and also see the war memorial erected to remember the horrific battles that were fought and lost on the Tawang ridge and also in the deep valleys of Namkha Chu and Nayamjang Chu rivers.

( To be continued in part VIII)

8th December 2014

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